Union-Friendly Maverick Leads New Charge for Charter Schools - New York Times:
LOS ANGELES — Steve Barr, a major organizer of charter schools, has been waging what often seems like a guerrilla war for control of this city’s chronically failing high schools.
In just seven years, Mr. Barr’s Green Dot Public Schools organization has founded 10 charter high schools and has won approval to open 10 more. Now, in his most aggressive challenge to the public school system, he is fighting to seize control of Locke Senior High, a gang-ridden school in Watts known as one of the worst in the city. A 15-year-old girl was killed by gunfire there in 2005.
In the process, Mr. Barr has fomented a teachers revolt against the Los Angeles Unified School District. He has driven a wedge through the city’s teachers union by welcoming organized labor — in contrast to other charter operators — and signing a contract with an upstart union. And he has mobilized thousands of black and Hispanic parents to demand better schools.
Educators and policy makers from Sacramento to Washington are watching closely because many believe Green Dot’s audacious tactics have the potential to strengthen and expand the charter school movement nationwide.
“He’s got a take-no-prisoners style,” said Jaime Regalado, the director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “He’s channeled the outrage of African-American and Latino parents into the public space in a way that’s new.”
Charter schools are publicly financed but managed by groups separate from school districts. Most other major charter organizations have focused on opening easier-to-run elementary and middle schools, not taking over devastated high schools.
Mr. Barr says, “We want systemic change, not to create oases in a desert.”
And while most charters have nonunion teachers and are often called union busters by opponents, Mr. Barr, a former fund-raiser for the California Democratic Party and co-founder of Rock the Vote, prefers to work with organized labor. Teachers at Green Dot schools have a contract, though one less rigid than at other Los Angeles schools.
Mr. Barr’s posture, as well as promising results at some of his schools, has attracted teachers to his side, even while splitting the larger teachers union, some of whose officials have been fighting him tooth and nail. Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, is working with him to put a Green Dot school in the South Bronx.
That alliance embarrassed United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents some 40,000 teachers. A. J. Duffy, its president, said in an interview that his union had allowed work rule waivers for some Los Angeles schools, but had erred several years ago by ruling out an arrangement with Green Dot.
“We could have and probably should have organized the Green Dot schools,” Mr. Duffy said. “They started with one charter school, now have 10, and in short order they’ll have 20 schools in Los Angeles, with all the teachers paying dues to a different union. And that’s a problem.”
The union representing Green Dot teachers, Association de Maestros Unidos, has a 33-page contract that offers competitive salaries but no tenure, and it allows class schedule and other instructional flexibility outlawed by the 330-page contract governing most Los Angeles schools.
Andrew J. Rotherham, who worked in the Clinton White House and is co-director of Education Sector, a research group in Washington, said, “Green Dot is mobilizing parents in poor neighborhoods and offering an alternative for frustrated teachers, and that’s scrambling the cozy power arrangements between the school district and the union to a degree not seen anywhere else.”
Mr. Barr has not just used his charters to challenge the district. He is also an ally of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat who has also battled the Los Angeles school district, seeking mayoral control.
The district superintendent , David L. Brewer III, met with Mr. Barr several times last spring to discuss his proposals for Locke, but those talks broke down.
“Mr. Brewer has said he continues to be interested in partnering with Green Dot,” said Greg McNair, who leads the district’s charter school division.
Green Dot is part of a new wave of nonprofit, high-performing charter chains that have grown rapidly with philanthropic financing, in Green Dot’s case especially from the Broad and the Bill & Melinda Gates foundations. Others include the Kipp Schools, in 18 states, and Achievement First, with 12 schools in New York and New Haven, said Ted Mitchell, head of the NewSchools Venture Fund, a San Francisco group that works with several chains.
Mr. Mitchell said that only Green Dot was mounting such an aggressive challenge to the local school board. “Many charter organizations try to induce different behavior by providing examples of good new schools,” he said. “But only Green Dot is trying to provoke a school district to behave in radically different ways.”
Some people voice skepticism about Green Dot’s methods. Clint Bolick, a lawyer who has represented many charter schools, said: “If union bosses start patrolling their hallways, that’ll be the death knell of charters, as it has been for public schools. There has to be a genuine perestroika for Green Dot’s approach to work.”
Tactics aside, the chain has had promising results. An early high school that Green Dot founded, Ànimo Inglewood, has raised the percent of students proficient in math by 40 points since 2003, and 79 percent of its students from the class of 2006 went on to college. Green Dot keeps enrollment in its high schools below 525. Incoming freshmen who need it remedial tutoring get it, and thereafter pursue a college-prep curriculum.
Three years ago, Mr. Barr negotiated with district officials about overhauling Jefferson High School, a dropout factory in downtown Los Angeles. When the talks bogged down, Mr. Barr concluded he needed clout.
Green Dot organized a parents union, and its members, buttonholing neighbors in supermarkets and churches, collected 10,000 signatures endorsing Jefferson’s division into several smaller charter schools.
Mr. Barr marched from Jefferson High with nearly 1,000 parents to deliver the petition to district headquarters. The authorities refused to relinquish Jefferson, but the school board approved five new charters, which Green Dot inaugurated last fall, all near Jefferson and drawing students from it.
Green Dot’s recent organizing suggests that many teachers are as frustrated as parents.
Locke, designated a failing school for much of a decade, is awaiting its fourth principal in five years. This spring, Mr. Barr drew up a charter plan and began meeting with teachers to explain it. He envisioned using the Locke campus for smaller schools that emphasize college prep and give teachers more decision-making authority.
He invited Frank Wells, Locke’s principal, to tour a Green Dot charter in May, a day on which Education Secretary Margaret Spellings would be visiting. Before parents, teachers and the secretary, Mr. Wells denounced the district as using Locke as a dumping ground for incompetent teachers.
“I went to Locke thinking I could turn it around, but I ran into a brick wall,” Mr. Wells said.
On May 7, teachers began circulating a petition endorsing Green Dot’s plan for Locke, and more than half of Locke’s 73-member tenured staff members signed. Bruce Smith, an English teacher who gathered signatures, said most young teachers were eager to sign; older teachers were reluctant.
“Among the people who opposed us, nobody said, ‘The district is doing a great job here,’ ” Mr. Smith recalled. “It was mostly, ‘What about our job security?’ ”
The district authorities accused Mr. Wells of fomenting the revolt, dispatched guards to escort him from the building, and dismissed him, Mr. Wells said. Binti Harvey, a district spokeswoman, declined to discuss Mr. Wells.
A decision by Locke’s teachers to break with the district would be an embarrassment for the school district and the teachers union. Both began lobbying the teachers. Last month, the district rejected Green Dot’s petition, saying 17 teachers had withdrawn their endorsement, leaving it without the majority necessary to comply with a charter conversion law.
But a newly elected board of education is to reconsider the petition in August.
Mr. Barr says that if he does not win the chance to use the Locke campus for his new charter schools, he will surround it with Green Dot’s next 10 charter schools, which are to open nearby in 2008, supported by a $7.8 million donation from the Gates Foundation.
“If the district doesn’t work with me, I’ll compete with them and take their kids,” Mr. Barr said.